Living On-Or Off-Base: Which Is Right For You?

The minute my husband was notified of his first duty station, I began doing my homework. I scoured the Internet, reading apartment reviews and online housing forums, and emailed local buildings with vacancies. As a new Army wife, I knew that the military had the final say in where we lived and for how long, but I was determined to make the best decisions with what I could control.

The first and most pressing issue became whether or not to live on-post. This is a question that every military couple faces, and each family has their own reasons for picking one or the other. I was slowly adjusting to “military speak” (all acronyms, all the time) and the plethora of regulations we now faced. It took me a while to grasp the differences between the two types of housing. When you live off-post, you receive a monthly allotment (BAH), determined by the cost of living in your area. This allotment may be more than enough to cover rent and utilities – or not. When you live on-post, this allocation goes straight toward your housing, so you never see a cent of it, no matter what type of on-post living arrangement are assigned.

I soon realized what this meant. As a young couple with no children, we only needed a one-bedroom apartment, preferably within a short distance of his workplace. Would we be able to pay our rent and utilities with BAH?

In short, yes. The Baltimore-Washington metro area is expensive, but our BAH was adjusted accordingly. On top of covering our housing expenses, we were able to save an additional $200 each month by not living on-post.

While we were able to find an affordable apartment that cost less than our BAH allotment, living off-post is not always the best option. Adding children to the equation may make it a different story, as most post housing is ‘family-size’ with two or more bedrooms, undoubtedly more expensive to rent independently of the military. Also, some towns where bases are located might have a limited amount of housing, or lack military-friendly leasing options, which could add up to costlier off-base rentals.

Marine wife Brianna VanderVeer knows firsthand that the cost of living near base makes an enormous difference when it comes to making housing decisions. When living in North Carolina, she and her husband Matt stayed off-post, but at their current duty station in Hawaii, they chose to reside on-base. “When we lived off-post [in North Carolina], we did save a few hundred dollars a month,” VanderVeer said. “But when we lived off-post in Hawaii we were spending more than our BAH. Other places may be cheaper to live off-post, but Hawaii is so expensive that you are getting a better deal living on-base.”

Living on-post can also save money when it comes to commuting and food costs, due to proximity to work and the discounted shopping at the commissary and PX. Picerne Military Housing, which houses members of the armed forces community at Fort Meade, cites several other advantages of on-post living, including free access to pools and playgrounds, no required security deposit or hookup fees, free trash and recycling pickup, on-post security, and 24-hour on-call maintenance.

Despite these selling points, service members and their families often find that the benefits of living off-post outweigh those of on-post arrangements. Air Force veteran Jessica Adams and her husband Phil, who is currently serving in the same branch, live off-base in Indiana. While stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, they both stayed in dorms, and while at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey they lived on-base for a year. After their experiences with all types of military housing, Adams found that she and her husband preferred off-post living.” We don’t like the townhouses on-base and all the issues of people being too loud and complaining,” she said. “We also like having our own house and yard. It’s a lot easier to separate work from personal life when you live off-base and aren’t surrounded by rank everywhere you turn.”

Currently, the couple owns two homes, which Adams said “we bought with the intent that our BAH would pay the mortgage and escrow and that we would pay the utilities ourselves. We felt that we weren’t getting enough benefit living on-base in NJ, especially with talks of giving people a usage allowance for utilities and having to pay the difference. If we were going to be paying part of the utilities ourselves we would just rather have complete control over our house.”

Adams felt that for her and her husband, living off-base was the best choice, though she realized that this might be different for others. “I know a lot of people that prefer living on-base and forfeiting their BAH, and are more than happy with what they receive for it,” she said. “We just like having that separate life away from military business on our own personal time. When we lived in North Carolina, we were able to completely pay for our rent and utilities with extra BAH to spare. We saw the benefit of living off-base and banking the extra BAH.”

As you consider your options, keep these key questions in mind:

Do you have children? If so, and especially if you have more than one child, living on-post may be your best bet. You’ll likely receive a townhome or single-family house, often for the same money as a small apartment and have access to nearby pools and playgrounds. Most importantly, you’ll rest easy knowing that your community is safe.

Is there a waiting list for on-post housing? This is a big one. Many bases have waiting lists ranging from a few weeks to a few months. If this is the case, you’ll have to find off-post accommodations until on-post housing opens up.

How expensive is the surrounding off-base area? Some places, like Hawaii, are notorious for steep rental prices, which make living on-post the more economical option. In other places, particularly in southern states, the reverse is true.

How far would you be living from post, if you choose to live off-base? Remember the savings you can achieve by you live on base you’ll save more on commuting costs, as well as on groceries and other household items at the commissary and PX.

Do you like to be surrounded by the support system of a like-minded community, or would you prefer to have a daily breather from military life? Some find the mood of a military base comforting; others find it restrictive. Many families cite the desire to be part of a larger community as a reason to live off-post – however, for some, especially those with a deployed spouse, it can be helpful to have friends nearby who are going through the same challenges.

How long do you expect to be at this duty station? It can be tough to find rental units with short-term leases (less than a year). If you’re not sure how long you will be stationed at a particular base, or if a deployment is coming up and the family might wait it out in another location, living on-post may be more convenient.

Are you a coupon clipper and penny saver? If so, you might prefer the ability to make your own decisions about housing and utilities, in order to get a good deal.

Remember to talk with your housing referral office on post (at some bases, this is required before you live off-post). The staffers there are experts in the nuances of your base’s policies and the atmosphere and prices of the surrounding neighborhoods, and they have information about both on- and off-post housing at their fingertips.

By Laura Marcus